Chinese Police Detain Illegal Church Members on Easter

Chinese police detained at least 30 Christians belonging to an unregistered Beijing church as the congregation gathered Sunday for an Easter service, a church member said.

Police stopped the worshippers from the unregistered Shouwang church as they gathered near a public plaza in the city's university district, then bused them to a local police station. The Associated Press saw about a dozen people taken away but a church member said at least 30 were detained.

Shouwang members have been trying to meet at the plaza in Beijing's Haidian district every Sunday since the congregation was evicted from its usual rented place of worship three weeks ago, but they have been detained or put under house arrest each time.

Lu Jia, a Shouwang member who was under house arrest from Saturday night until Sunday afternoon, said by telephone that he and his wife held a half-hour service at home using a sermon their pastor uploaded to the Internet.

"Before hand, I went out and told the men guarding my door that I didn't want to argue with them but I had to tell them that what they were doing was illegal, that it violated my right to believe, to practice my faith," Lu said. "Then we had a short service reading the sermon together and selections from the Bible."

Lu said all of the church's pastors and leaders were under house arrest and 30 Shouwang members were detained when they arrived at the designated meeting place. Lu and others were planning to go to the police station to try to negotiate their release, he said.

While China's Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, Christians are required to worship in churches run by state-controlled organizations -- the Three-Self Patriotic Movement for Protestants and the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association for Catholics.

However, more than 60 million Christians are believed to worship in unregistered "house" churches, compared to about 20 million in the state churches, according to scholars and church activists. The growth of house churches has accelerated in recent years, producing larger congregations that are far more conspicuous than the small groups of friends and neighbors that used to worship in private homes that gave the movement its name.

Their expansion and growing influence have unsettled China's rulers, always suspicious of any independent social group that could challenge Communist authority.

Shouwang members have for years been at odds with Beijing officials over their right to worship. They said in a statement last week that they tried to register with the government in 2006 but were rejected.

In December 2009, the church bought property in northwest Beijing for regular Sunday services but government interference prevented the group from occupying the space, the statement said.